Linking Science and Social Issues

Why is the Chemistry and Policy Course a SENCER Model?

The Course Intersection Method is a model for collaboration between science and social science or humanities courses to facilitate teaching and learning the connection between science and policy making. This method intersects two courses for a limited portion of the semester without sacrificing the integrity or focus of the individual courses. As a pedagogical method, its application brings non-science into science courses, while bringing science into economic, political and cultural contexts. Its form allows crossing boundaries, while maintaining disciplinary integrity. Our model of teaching fits into SENCER ideals by fostering communication of knowledge and integration of methods across the disciplines. Besides its form, the content of the intersection, when organized around a social problem, defines its possibilities for civic engagement. When faculty and students from different disciplinary areas collaborate in their effort to define, explore and debate solutions to social problems, they enter a common ground. We believe that the longer they maintain the common ground, the more likely they will become engaged citizens. As a pedagogical method, this intersection teaches our students that their chosen field has civic responsibility and fosters the role of faculty as scholar-teacher citizens.

In order to achieve effective solutions to societal problems that involve science and technology, citizens need to be able to communicate with scientists and policy makers. We have explored new ways to integrate our efforts in education, extending the possibility and promise that different disciplines can contribute to each other in terms of theory and practice. The Course Intersection Method involves two classes coming together for about three weeks, creating a new context in which the material of each course can be taught. The students are expected to use knowledge and apply tools from their own disciplines, and learn ways to integrate each others' contributions into the problem solving process.

In this specific application of our method we have chosen to study urban lead (Pb) exposure and have intersected Instrumental Analysis with Introduction to Urban Studies. The Chemistry students, who are mostly science majors, are the scientists on the project. As such they see that the usefulness of their contribution will depend on their knowledge of the problem and their understanding of the civic process that will use their results to shape public policy. In a complementary way, the urban studies students are the policymakers. The urban students are confronted with an urban policy problem: the evaluation of and response to lead (Pb) exposure in an urban environment. Part of the understanding of this problem relies on scientific studies in analytical chemistry, toxicology, and epidemiology in the context of economic and political conditions that set standards and limit the implementation of policy making. Through this joint project the policy makers and scientists must work together to study a real case of lead exposure in their own environment. As a result, students in both classes will see that their chosen field has civic responsibilities as they are exposed to the complexities of putting their knowledge in a wider social context. This intersection of the two courses fosters changes in attitudes and lowering of barriers to participation in the democratic process.

The project gives responsibility to educators, students and institutions for connecting science and civic engagement. It assigns to educators the role of facilitators to learning scientific knowledge, method and analysis, locating them within the dimensions of public issues. Students are expected to challenge themselves, to tangle with larger issues about scientific processes and methods, and to discover that they are also citizens, responsible for knowledge produced and disseminated. Educational institutions are also called upon to find ways to foster and accommodate scientists, who are exploring their voice in public policy. The SENCER project is designed to grow as our comprehension of its necessity in a democratic society grows; civic responsibility is not an addendum or a burden, but a necessity and a privilege to facilitate an egalitarian future
(SENCER Overview, 2002).

What are the capacious civic questions or problems addressed in the course?

Through our course we explore the following set of questions:

  1. How does science inform policy?
  2. How does the policy making process affect the interpretation and integration of scientific data?
  3. How do scientists and policy makers formulate questions and devise methods to explore them?
  4. How do scientists reveal their findings, reach conclusions, and communicate the implications of their work to policy makers and the general
  5. How do policy makers set standards, assess risk, and evaluate policy outcomes and communicate the implications of their work to scientists and the general public?

A major goal of higher education is to produce students prepared to integrate complex knowledge derived from science, social science and humanities intoeveryday life and to provide a balanced education for better preparation for citizenship in a participatory democracy. In this context, science literacy has been a critical issue for science educators, and a dominant concern of NSF, National Research Council, AAAS and Project 2061. While the challenge of science literacy has been to connect fundamental ideas in science with technology to foster critical thinking and independent decision making, we believe that the civic application of science requires policy literacy. Policy literacy is the ability to ask questions regarding the organizing principles of organizations, institutions and the state and to understand the process of change in these bodies so as to be able to participate in the policy making process. The separation of science and policy has lead to isolated knowledge and a disconnection between the public, scientists and policy makers in an advanced technological society. Through the Course Intersection Method, our educational goal is to generate civic literacy, to encourage students to seek innovative paths to the fusion of science and policy literacies, and to facilitate informed and responsive decision making in a democratic society. The key to our effort is to enable, support, and foster communication which would not take place ordinarily. By participating in the course intersection, our students develop collaborative approaches to solving complex, multifaceted scientific and social problems.

As disciplinary based scholars we, along with our students, hope to develop an understanding of the connection (and misconnection) between science and policy making through exploration of teaching and learning in disciplinary and multi-disciplinary settings. Our two disciplines, Chemistry and Urban Studies, are well suited to explore and implement a new method of teaching and learning to benefit science majors in terms of supporting their comprehension of the context in which knowledge is produced, as well as non-science majors' understanding of the possibilities and limitations of science contributions to policy making. Within this overarching goal of fostering a multidisciplinary perspective, the students will also enrich their disciplinary commitment. Chemistry students will see that knowledge of the context in which the science will be used is necessary for formulating appropriate questions. The context will serve as the basis for selecting between multiple analytical methods and interpreting sometimes conflicting results. Another goal is to challenge them to convey scientific information to non-chemists, and explore ways to integrate scientific knowledge
into policy making. The Urban Studies students, in a complementary way, will gain direct experience with the methods and process of scientific inquiry, thus inspiring them to expand their knowledge of science and its applications. Urban Studies students are challenged to provide political and economic constraints and possibilities for policy making, policy implications and risk. This project also encourages productive, collaborative work between science and social science faculty, thus joining what C.P. Snow termed the "two cultures."

What basic science is covered?

The science presented in the analytical chemistry class is standard for a chemistry major's Instrumental Analysis course, including spectroscopy, chromatography, and electrochemistry (see course syllabus). As a result of the intersection, emphasis is given to the specific chemical form of the analyte measured by a given technique and the importance of sampling, especially in complex environmental problems, to the overall validity of the investigation. There is also an enhanced appreciation of calibration, validation and measurement uncertainty when the experimental results are being presented to the policy makers.

The urban students are given background chemistry of Pb (lead) especially in regards to methods and principles of toxicology and epidemiology, discussing exposure pathways and routes, dose response and analysis, impact of chronic and subchronic exposures, and Pb's persistence in the environment. There is an emphasis on the assessment of risk in the context of scientific uncertainty. We explore the impact of changing exposure thresholds on policy making, along with the relevance of longitudinal and cross-sectional population exposure data.

It is important for students to learn not just the specific information but the process of scientific inquiry and its application to real issues. Through exploring the complexities of a chemical/urban environment/policy problem, students gain the tools and knowledge to work across fields while maintaining the integrity of the content. By utilizing scientific principles in problem solving, students develop the imagination to apply these principles in their approach to other problems.